Review by: Carolyn E. Hopkins


Laughing in the Dark
By Patrice Gaines

Patrice Gaines’s turbulent journey from being a young colored girl from the South to a proud and prolific African-American reporter for The Washington Post is simply amazing. Her autobiography, Laughing in the Dark, chronicles her life in such a way that readers cannot help but feel that they are somehow an integral part of her journey. Gaines does not hold back from revealing her life, with all of its ups and downs, in an effort to convey the determination and strength that she acquired through numerous abusive and dead-end relationships with men throughout her life and her endless battle with racism.

The beginning of the novel takes place in Quantico, Virginia, a military base located outside of Washington, DC. This is where she befriends two young white girls who are around her age, which is about six-years old. They become inseparable and do not notice racial differences; however, it is at school that Gaines becomes aware of her black skin and realizes through her racist first-grade teacher that she is not good enough. This message of inferiority stays with Gaines thoughout most of her life and in a way, sets the stage for the many failures and insecurities that she is forced to confront later in her adult life. She remembers feeling confused by being treated differently by Mrs. Bloomfield, her first-grade teacher:

    Even when I was in first grade and couldn’t explain to myself why Mrs. Bloomfield acted the way she did, I hurt. She was the first person I ever met who did not like me because I was cute and polite or because I always wore pretty clothes. I had an inkling that something was terribly wrong with the way she treated me, something bigger than a child my size could understand. Children know when an action by an adult falls outside the realm of real love.

As Gaines grows older, she moves back and forth from the North to the South many times, sometimes with her family and sometimes without them. I think the frequent moving around during her life left her with feelings of instability which is conveyed in her many relationships. It is clear after reading this remarkable woman’s story that most of her problems with men stemmed from her not really understanding her father, whose love she yearned for most of her life. However, after she is grown, she discovers that the man she had called father all her life really isn’t her father after all. Consequently, in her quest for love and self-esteem, she meets many men who physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse her. She is not able to distinguish between love and abuse, which causes her journey to womanhood to be even more difficult. And just when you think that Gaines has been through more emotional and physical abuse than any one woman can stand, you find her back in another abusive relationship, one in which she is raped and severely beaten with a leather whip.

Some of the major themes emerging from the autobiographical account of this remarkably strong black woman’s story are empowerment, determination, and creativity. Gaines realizes after she has reached a low point in her life and that the only way to true happiness is through self-empowerment-- so she seeks to find her voice through writing. She remembers that English was always her best subject and that she was able to put into words what she could not always put into action in her personal life. Thus writing becomes a venue for understanding herself and her creativity. Being a single mother does not hinder her from finding time to write for a local newspaper nor does it keep her from attending writing classes at a local college. Her professors praise her writing, and they encourage her to take her it more seriously.

Throughout Gaines’s journey to black womanhood she is even sent to prison for "possession of a controlled substance…heroin." However, it was at this time spent in a women’s prison that she bonded with other women who, too, were victimized by men whom they thought loved them. The title of her book comes from her experience in prison; for many nights, after lights were ordered out, Gaines and her cellmates would continue talking and laughing in the dark. After she is released and waits for a hearing on her sentence, she realizes something significant about herself: "As I sat waiting to hear the judge’s words, my eyes fell on my own small, trembling brown hands and I realized where my real power lay. Even as a child, I had felt powerless. But as I was looking at these white men, it struck me that I had always given away my power--to my parents, to teachers, to men I loved."

The book is easy to read and the writer’s diction is clear, vivid, and engaging. She uses similes such as "As we dismantled our booth on the last day, I felt like Cinderella. The clock had struck midnight and I had to step off the pages of Ebony and return to my wretched life." It is the use of powerful similes such as this one that evokes an emotional response from the reader while following Gaines’ journey to victory.

It is a story that inspired me, saddened me, and empowered me. Through her honest and in-depth revelations, I was able to relate to her struggles and defeats and rejoice in her victories and triumphs. This book is a must-read for women seeking to break free of the limitations of race and society, as well as female victimization. It is a book that conjures up courage and determination within women even if they did not know that they possessed these attributes. We, women of all races, economic backgrounds and ages should read Gaines’s Laughing in the Dark because it makes us think that there is an undeniable, driving determination within each of us to make our lives amount to something more than just taking up space on the planet.

ISBN: 038548027X

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